Thursday, April 24, 2008

Byzantium N O W

"We're stocking up on Windex" said a Getty spokesman in preparation for Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai, the premier 2006-07 Byzantine art exhibition in America. Judging from the New York Times review (Nov. 12, 2006), the organizers seemed intrigued by the devotional repercussions of such an exhibit, namely visitors smearing their bodily fluids on the pristine airtight glass cases. The curator, herself, discovered such practices in Cairo, when a Coptic housekeeper kissed the image of the catalog proofs scattered on her work table. The Getty exhibition highlights most dramatically the biblical gulf that separates the white tower of Byantine art-history and its subject matter (not to mention the monks' postmodern relationship with the Getty during their visit). Perhaps it has less to do with culture (East vs. West) as it might have to do with class and social expectations. One hardly needs to travel to Egypt to see the devotional kissing of objects; housekeepers all over Los Angeles engage in such practices if one attends closely to the Latino community. Sometimes, I think that Byzantine wisdom resides in the plastic furniture covers of immigrant households, or even in Gus Portoklalos' prophetic cure, "every ailment from psoriasis to poison ivy can be cured with Windex" in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002).

During the last year my research has been focusing on the intoxicating motivations for studying Byzantine art during the 1930s. For better or for worse (and for a variety of reasons too complex to enumerate here), Byzantium mattered greatly. The same could be said for the 1960s, too, which explains the renaissance of Byzantine art history during this period. Glenn Peers is working on a terrific new project showing how Byzantium infected American postwar art, why Clement Greenberg would write "Byzantine Parallels" in 1958 (
Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston 1961, pp. 167-170), or why the de Menils would commission both a Byzantine icon chapel and a Rothko chapel at Houston (Peers, "Utopia and Heterotopia: Byzantine Modernisms in America," paper, Florence, 2005). But this only takes us into ca. 1980. Did Byzantium lose its cultural relevance? Not entirely, considering that postmodernism loved all marginal periods. Byzantium was useful for a greater counter-canonical critique, which ultimately addressed the canon itself (and those who cared about it from Allan Bloom to Lynne-Chenney's NEH. In 2005, Anthony Cutler gave a talk at the University of Toronto illustrating some lessons from the classroom, showing how Byzantine art was perfect for introducing the postmodern condition. And research on Byzantine historiography flourished in the mid-1990s, with some excellent works, such as, Robert Ousterhout, "An Apologia for Byzantine Architecture, Gesta 35 (1996), pp. 21-33; Robert S. Nelson, "Living on the Byzantine Borders of Western Art, Gesta 35 (1996), pp. 3-11; "The Map of Art History," Art Bulletin 79 (1997), pp. 28-40.

During this last semester (Spring 2008) , I've been part of an Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) public outreach program, lecturing on Byzantium, the avant-garde, archaeology and the 1930s. After my talks, an inner voice and often an audience member would ask the natural question: Does the West care about Byzantium today? Has Byzantium lost the relevance (or even a superficial hotness value) that it had in the 30s? Are there any subjective motivations for studying Byzantine material culture in the 21st century? I commonly gave one simple answer. Yes, the lore of Byzantium rose after World War I and World War II because Byzantine lands (like Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia) were at the limelight of "the other." Up until the Cold War, Byzantium was the edge of the West. Thanks to 9/11 and China's economic growth, the front has moved to Mesopotamia and China. American academia unabashedly displays its opportunist underbelly. Dressed up in some transparent do-good enlightenment, every art history department is scrambling to hire Islamicists and Asianists. Sure, the discipline needs to integrate those lesser known periods and regions, but the timing of multiculturalism requires reflection. Our academic open-mindedness is politically and economically motivated, simply riding on a much larger wave. Have we forgotten about Orientalism altogether? have we forgotten about Napoleon and the Egyptian Expedition? what happened to all that reading of Foucault we seem to be doing, inquiring about the relationship between knowledge and power. Getting to know Islam and the East corresponds cannot be separated from the geopolitics of dominance. The culture wars (focused on America) have shifted into the global wars (focused on American dominance). From a Machiavelian vantage point, the waning of Byzantium makes clear sense. Frankly, I don't know what is better: to relish liberal academia's attention, knowing that heavier guns surround it, or to chose oblivion. I won't try to answer this question but simply acknowledge that Byzantine Studies are spectacularly diminishing and perhaps we should celebrate that condition (even if it means a whole bunch of unemployed Byzantine art historians).

A more interesting question for me right now is how Byzantium is positively capturing the public imagination. My AIA lecture tour coincided with the release of Richard Price's new novel
Lush Life (2008). I had never read Price before (Clockers, 1992, etc.) and knew him only as a writer for HBO's The Wire, a growing addiction (having no HBO, I'm only now getting the first season from Netflix, and, OH MY GOD, IS IT GOOD). Having my own first experience with public lecturing (and, I guess, self promotion), my ears perked up when catching Price's parallel promotional campaign, which has been quite pervasive. No regular PBS viewer or NPR listener could have missed an interview. Returning from two lectures in Ohio, on April 16, 2008, I caught Price on the Bryant Park Project in the early morning on Charlie Rose (PBS) in the late night. In both interviews, Price talked about ... Byzantium or the Byzantine landscape of his novel. A month and a half earlier, the New York Times had referred to the "Sleepy-Eyed Writer Wandering Byzantium," (Charles McGrath, March 2, 2008). Price's Byzantium is the Manhattan's Lower East Side where "the shift in the tectonic plates" is taking place, and where six separate universes are intersecting: 1) Fujianese/Chinese, 2) Orthodox Jews, 3) Porto-Ricans/Dominicans, 4) Projects Un-Rehab tenements, 5) Black culture, 6) La Bohèmers. In his review of Lush Life, Michael Chabon calls Price a demonologist like Dostoevsky and Philip Roth ("In Priceland," New York Review of Books 55.7, May 1, 2008).

At first, it seemed that Richard Price is using Byzantium as a metaphor for ethnic tapestry or cultural mosaic. So, I resisted the novel, especially since I've been reading another book also referred to as "Byzantine," Thomas Pynchon's
Against the Day (2007). Having committed to 1,000 pages of sheer Pynchon pleasure, I wasn't ready for additional reading commitments (and, I must agree with the critics, Against the Day is the next best Pynchon novel since Gravity's Rainbow, 1974). But after repeated flirtations with Lush Life at the Greenville Barnes and Noble, I finally broke down and started reading it. The experience was a revelation. Although it's premature to make any overall statement, I cannot resist commenting on the first 32 pages that I have read. Byzantium is more than a metaphor, it is a paradigm laboriously worked through in the language, the motifs and the novel's preoccupations. Generic cultural history is not what Price has in mind. Eric Cash, the main character, thinks: "But after nearly a decade in the neighborhood, even on a sun-splashed October morning like this, all of this ethnohistorical mix 'n' match was, much like himself, getting old" (p. 15). It's as if Price is commenting on the state of Byzantine art history, especially the kind that tracks cultural influence (from the East, the South, the North, the West).

Walking to work, Eric runs into commotion. A young Chinese policeman, Fenton Ma, like the archangel of the Annunciation, tells Eric of the religious revelation taking place inside the Sana'a 24/7, the mini-mart run by two Yemeni brothers. The conversation goes as follows:

"What is it?"
"Mary's in there," Ma said, getting bumped by the ripple effect of the crowd he was holding back.
"Mary who."
"Mary the Virgin. She showed up in the condensation on one of the freezer doors last night. Word travels fast around here, no?" Taking another bump from behind. (p. 17)

Price's novel begins with an image, perhaps a work of art, manifesting itself on the glass surface, similar to the condensation eradicated by the Getty's Windex army at the Mount Sinai exhibition. "The Virgin was a sixteen-inch-high gourd-shaped outline molded in frost on the glass doors fronting the beer and soda shelves, its smoothly tapered top slightly inclined to one side above its broader lower mass, reminding him vaguely of all the art-history Marys tilting their covered heads to regard the baby in their arms, but really, it was kind of a stretch." (pp. 17-18). Price's description takes us into the most quotidian realm and self-consciously humors the image. There's been an explosion of art-historical scholarship on the Byzantine Virgin (mostly from Harvard) which desperately stretches traditional art history towards theory. Price's condensation-Virgin manages to capture the complexity of Byzantium (iconicity, materiality, subjectivity, meaning, meaninglessness) in ways that supersede the verbiage of scholarship. The hero Eric asks policeman Lo Presto (this time not Chinese but Latino):

"Can I ask you something?" Eric said lightly, not knowing this guy.
"Have you seen her in there?"
"Who, the Virgin?" Lo Presto looked at him neutrally. "Depends what you mean by 'seen'."
"You know. Seen."

The vision and erasure of the cooler condensation provides an element of hubris. Ike "casually reached for the glass door, opening it for a few seconds, then closing it back." (p. 24) Later in the bar, Ike humors Eric, "I have a real bad feeling it's going to come back and bite me in the ass... I'm just fuckin' with you brother." (p. 29) Ike's murder (later that night) and Eric's accusation becomes
Lush Life's narrative premise.

Perhaps I'll never be able to sufficiently articulate how EXCELLENT this incident is, vis-a-vis art history today, but I am thoroughly provoked. This is TOTALLY Byzantine in some deeper way. A few days ago, I attended Holy Friday services at the Greek Orthodox Church at Greenville. The experience was sociologically terrific. Lots has been written about the Southern Greek-Americans (esp. RE: rates of assimilation) and, indeed, they are an interesting lot (I'm one of them, too). At the end of the service, Father Tom made a fabulously weird apologia on the visual quality of the Epitaphios flowers. Apparently, the faithful had complained in previous years that the flowers were not bright enough. Father Tom went through a catalog of this year's colors and explained how the problem is not the floral selection but the lighting of the space. Saint George is a Byzantine revival structure (from the 1990s, I believe) with a huge central dome and insufficient lighting for fancy display. After last year's complains, someone from the church council placed a spot light in the back of the church to assist in highlighting the brightness of the sepulcher. Father Tom's sermon revealed the innovation. The discussion alone, following a long and beautiful service, was priceless in addressing problems of experience, revelation and aesthetics but with Greenbergian material rigor. The southern flowers of Greek Easter, like the condensation of the Lower East side, make Byzantium still infinitely interesting (in ways that Chinese or Islamic art could not fully replace).

Listening to Price interview makes it clear that he is a master of conversation. Chabon calls him "one of the best writers of dialog in the history of American literature" (see earlier). The beauty of his book lies heavily on the hours and hours of fieldwork he has put in studying the tectonic plates of the Lower East Side; he's an artist-ethnographer and an artist-archaeologist. So I anticipated the amazing conversational voices of the novel. But I never expected the levels of visual acuity that I've encountered. This novel could be seen as a treatise on the state of contemporary art history. Price directly tackles the world of visual imagery from tattoos to architecture. A waitress (another Virgin perhaps?) "had all seven dwarfs tattooed in miniature trampling up the inside of her thigh." (p. 19) Ike, a new bartender in Eric Cash's cafe, visits the condensation Virgin and extinguishes the vision by opening the refrigerator door. He is tattooed, too. "He had a shaved head and a menagerie of retro tattoos inside both forearms--hula girls, mermaids, devil heads, panthers--but his smile was as clean as cornfield." (p. 20). Another character, Paulie Shaw, tries to sell the restaurant owner slide transparencies, originals of Jacob Riis--who is, in many ways, Price's predecessor in documenting Manhattan's human condition (
How the Other Half Lives, 1891). Shaw holds the slides up to the light: "Each one personally hand-tinted by Riis himself for his lectures ... The man was light-years ahead of his time, total multimedia, had sixty to a hundred of these fading in and out of each other on a huge screen accompanied by music." (p. 20) Price becomes our multimedia word-smith. We turn the corner and, in fact, we have architecture, a synagogue whose roofed collapsed a few days earlier. A rabbi tries to save the tattered remains of prayer books, while a light-skinned and Latino teenager are stuffing the salvaged sheets into pillowcases. This is truly a visual masterpiece. We gather from his interviews that Price was personally immersed in the project of documenting the Lower East Side, a place that was inhabited by his Jewish immigrant ancestors and a century later by his hipster teenage kids.

In conclusion, I believe that Byzantium continues to matter. This is suggested in Price's Lower East Side research turned into fiction. I usually cringe with the association between New York and Byzantium, as it often stays at the level of gold and glitter (not that there is anything wrong with gold and glitter). At some visceral level, the cultural traditions of Latin America are relevant to Byzantium and they are vibrant in New York. Diego Rivera is probably one of the earliest artists to import Byzantium into the Americas. In 1920, Rivera visited Ravenna studying its mosaics as a visual prototype for his own monumental art. Rivera's tradition survives in what the
New York Times calls "Hip-Hop Byzantium." Surely a whole new blog posting may be necessary to describe the relevance of Byzantium in modern Latin American arts and the public work of Nanny Vega. Suffice it to conclude with sending you to David Gonzalez's discussion of Vega's work in "In Mosaics, an Artists Lasting Impressions", NYT February 25, 2008.

Is it a class thing? Perhaps it is. Art history, its curators and scholars are aiming high and missing low. Byzantium N O W is better nourished in the bosoms of Coptic and Latino housekeepers. The geopolitics of Empire my take us far out into China and Iraq, where we can buy the latest hot Chinese art or the latest luted antiquity. But the business of the cultural historian might keep him closer to literature, New York, L.A. (minus the Getty), Philadelphia, Cleveland, the Byzantium of Richard Price or, for that matter, the Detroit of Jeffrey Eugenides (
Middlesex, 2003). I like this Byzantium of N O W even if I'm not sure exactly what it may add up to. Christ has risen in Greenville, y'all, and Ike has opened the cooler door that erased the Virgin. Happy Easter.


millinerd said...

A virtuosic post! While I prefer your reasons for Byzantium's continued relevance, considering American academia's "opportunist underbelly," perhaps the surest hope for Byzantine studies lies with Vladimir Putin.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you would find it even remotely entertaining or interesting to celebrate a horde of unemployed Byzantinists! How awful.

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Kostis Kourelis

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